The importance of personal relationships

XV.5 September + October 2008
Page: 11
Digital Citation

FEATUREIntimate interactions

Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell

Few people would say that they wished their romantic lives were more like computing: efficient, automated, inorganic, and lightning fast. Yet technology is becoming increasingly implicated in the most intimate aspects of our lives and selves. At the same time we see calls in HCI to make technology more human scaled, everyday, domestic, and emotionally competent. Both of these trends are evidence that technology and cultural practices are still calibrating to one another. As a result, paying special attention to the intersections of technology and symbolically and emotionally dense cultural experiences, such as sex, food, and art, can be especially illuminating.

We use the term “intimacy” as opposed to “sexuality” to emphasize the broadest and most inclusive notions of human sexuality as they have been explored in psychology, women’s studies, philosophy, sociology, and literary theory, among other fields. This more expansive conceptualization of sexuality goes far beyond acts of physical sex to include a wide range of human relationships, such as friendship and romantic attachment; categories of experience, from pleasure to anxiety; and philosophically rich conceptual domains, such as embodiment and identity.

To be sure, technology has created abundant opportunity for emotionally vacuous sexual content. However, we bracket such content aside, not because it lacks social or technical significance, but rather because undue emphasis on it potentially forecloses more nuanced understandings of how everyday people find emotional fulfillment in online social spaces. Research on positive aspects of intimacy online has the potential to give interaction designers insight into the relationships between technology and some of the deepest and most meaningful dimensions of human experience.

The Self on the Screen

We have witnessed the rise of an important innovation in the relationship between the user and the system. In traditional productivity applications, software, data, and processes are all inside the computer, while the user is outside, looking in through the monitor. With the rise of social technologies, we are increasingly seeing a different relationship: The user now has an explicit and visible representation inside the screen as well. This representation has different names, including “profile” and “avatar,” and it is ultimately through this representation of the self, rather than the “real” self sitting in “meat space,” that people interact with data, systems, and one another in computer-mediated settings.

Avatars are perhaps the most visible example. They can range from a simple photo (e.g., in Facebook) to a fully realized videogame character with an otherworldly appearance, extensive cultural history, and set of abilities and racial characteristics (e.g., in World of Warcraft). Going back in time, avatars in the multi-user dungeons (MUDs) of the 1990s were text-based representations of the self, composed by users and shared with other users. Though diverse in origin and use, avatars all share a common feature: Their relationship to their meat-space counterparts is symbolic, manipulable, idealized, and/or dynamic. A glimpse of one’s Facebook or Twitter contacts, for instance, reveals a range of profile photos, from glamour shots to Simpsons characters, rather than everyday snapshots; users with such profile pictures are presenting themselves rhetorically, that is, with an interest in causing others to perceive them in a certain way. In short, avatars are (often deliberately) poor as literal representations of users, but they are rich as performed expressions of how users perceive themselves and/or desire to be perceived.

This formulation of avatars as symbolic performances echoes a conceptualization of sociologist Erving Goffman [1], who saw human identity in general as the stage-managed performance of everyday social activities, in which situationally appropriate behaviors are set up “on stage,” and situationally inappropriate thoughts or behaviors are left “backstage,” out of sight. For example, a person behaves differently and uses different kinds of language in front of friends, colleagues, and family.

As interaction designers, we might ask how the stages, or interactive ecologies, we create regulate or encourage identity performance. Presumably, a collaborative whiteboard in Adobe Breeze is a different sort of stage than a map for a death match in a first-person shooter, such as Halo. Likewise, we might explore ways that identities are performed in surprising ways that seem at first glance to transcend the needs of a given stage. For example, in Second Life, role-playing communities have formed that add considerable layers of social complexity and rule-based social expectation to a virtual world that already seemed to have plenty of both. But why did they do it, and what can we learn from it?

From Online Representation to Online Subjectivity

Rather than understanding online avatars as representations, designers should instead understand them as subjectivities. A representation is a static signifier, a word or a picture that refers to the real thing. It is always separate from what it signifies, and through this separation, it can also lie. A subjectivity, in contrast, is a living force, an agent that both acts in the world and is constituted in the world through action. Because it is constituted through action or performance, it cannot lie; it is as it does.

The way we conceptualize avatars as designers has profound implications for what we design. In the context of cybersecurity say, in an online-banking application, a representational notion of identity is fully appropriate. The bank and the user both need to know that the online representation of the other indeed truthfully represents their interaction partner. Phishing, of course, violates this by offering a false representation of an online partner. But a banking transaction is not analogous to an emotionally involved exchange of intimacy, be it romance or even friendship. In online friendships, actions—shared experiences, expressions of empathy, deep conversations—drive relationships, not user-name/password-based authentication.

The concept of online subjectivity has already been developed. For example, Sherry Turkle explores the notion, using her experiences as a clinical psychologist to show how virtual worlds empower people to become and explore alternative selves [2]. A shy high schooler and social outcast, for example, becomes a virtual prom king, cultivating self-confidence and learning the social skills required to interact with the opposite sex. In a more pessimistic response, Lisa Nakamura observes after her research in MUDs that often when people explore the cultural Other, they are more likely to act as tourists of stereotypes [3]. So, for example, the player who takes on the role of a samurai or geisha does not, in fact, learn anything about the Japanese experience, but rather lives in and promulgates Western stereotypes of Japanese caricatures.

Both Turkle and Nakamura are alike in describing online subjectivities, where avatars do not truthfully represent stable real-life identities, but rather where players and their avatars together become other than what they were (whether through growth or degeneration). Borrowing a notion from philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault, we might compare an online subjectivity to the virtual self as a work of art, where the resulting subjectivity is unique and yet also a performance, an event, a happening rather than a thing [4, 5]. As Tseëlon writes on masquerade, another promising metaphor of the player-avatar relationship in virtual worlds, “the performative model obliterates the distance between the ‘person’ and the ‘act.’ The act becomes part of the stylistic device that produces the substance: performance is identity [6].”

In this view avatars are not images or characters radically separated from the “real” players; they are aspects of players’ real-life identities played out on virtual stages, not unlike the way the same people might “perform” at frat parties or wedding receptions or in classrooms and restaurants.

Emergent Practices of Online Intimacy

If virtual-world users are cultivating online subjectivities, then it follows that these subjectivities have, at least in the broadest sense, sexualities, because players bring their expectations, desires, and phobias in-world with them; and that these contribute to the performance of their identities. Camille Paglia argues that human sexuality has two fundamental groundings: nature and culture [7]. In nature, sexuality is a physical force, chaotic, even ruthless. In culture, it is carefully conditioned, via explicit laws, taboos, and unconscious yet shared sexual scripts. Compared with real life, these forces are also present online, but they play out in different ways: The physical intensity of sex is diminished (which is not to say absent); partners often never meet in physical space. The symbolic aspect is vastly enhanced because avatars, themselves constituted from symbols and rhetorical forms, mediate interaction. Finally, virtual worlds themselves have considerably fewer control mechanisms (e.g., laws, taboos, socially accepted boundaries) to regulate intimate behavior.

This particular combination—diminished physical relations, heightened symbolic interaction, and diminished social regulation—leads to practices of intimacy that perhaps can be best described as aestheticized. In other words, the diminished physical aspect is compensated for by heightened imagination, facilitated both by the symbolic richness and convenient manipulability of avatars and by the weakening of social taboos against nontraditional sexual expressions. Foucault makes a similar argument in claiming that creative sexual experimentation and innovation in the 1960s came about because all the energy and imagination that had hitherto been channeled into courtship in traditional marriage-based societies needed new outlets at a time when casual sex was conveniently available [8]. Stated more abstractly, the recent history of sex in the West is, among other things, a history of user-generated identity performance, and with it, experience design. Virtual worlds are simply another stage where this process takes place.

Players reenact human practices of intimacy in ways that are appropriate to virtual worlds. This can be seen not only in the obvious areas of online prostitution and cybersex but also in practices of everyday intimacy, such as the closeness of two friends. Second Life avatars often greet each other with a virtual hug, one of the first user-created animations we ever saw in Second Life and one of the most pervasive to this day. Clearly, the virtual hug animation offers something that a text-based greeting does not, and its visualized embodiment surely is a major aspect of that. One of the most common activities in-world is for two players to meet in a club and to dance together (the dancing animation is automated) and chat away the evening in a private instant-messaging window. This combination of text chat and collaborative embodied symbolic presentation is, based on the sheer popularity of these clubs, a potent combination for Second Life users.

As the hug and dance examples suggest, the performance of identity in virtual worlds is always multimedia. Stated more provocatively, online identity is an ongoing practice of multimedia authoring. It involves avatar design, using available avatar-design interfaces. Virtual worlds offer the opportunity to customize one’s day-to-day style, from in-world auction houses where players exchange virtual clothes for currency to Second Life vendors who sell virtual fashions for what indirectly amounts to U.S. dollars. With expressive interfaces ranging from chat windows with emoticons to voiced and animated actions, players can communicate with one another in robust linguistic and embodied or gestural ways. They can form short- to long-term persistent groups and establish their identities, habits, and manners in them. By acting in, and in some cases changing virtual worlds, players leave their mark on the world itself. Finally, by recording videos of themselves for posting on YouTube, blogging about their activities, creating MySpace profiles for their avatars, and so on, players take their virtual subjectivities outside of the virtual world.

The Aestheticization of Online Intimacy

If identity is a function of performance on a stage, and virtual worlds require performers to act in varying degrees as multimedia authors, then it follows that an aesthetic appropriate to virtual identity and virtual-world multimedia authoring will likely emerge. It already has, perhaps most conspicuously in Second Life in the emergent virtual fashion industry, which features major virtual fashion design studios, a critical community comprising virtual fashion magazines and blogs, modeling agencies, and fashion shows.

An aesthetic has also emerged in the context of intimacy. As we have argued, intimacy in Second Life is aestheticized by expanding it sensually and intellectually to make it participate in a broader range of visual and literary experience [9]. A glimpse at intimate interaction in Second Life quickly reveals that visually, it largely resembles its analogues in real life. Intimate fashions, such as one would expect to see in Victoria’s Secret, are abundantly available in-world. Props, such as beds and other objects of intimacy, are likewise available, often with animations. More subtly, and more important from a socio-cultural standpoint, idealizations of male and especially female forms are impossible to miss; most female avatars have supermodel proportions (and often movie-star hairstyles and stilettos to match), while male avatars often have athletic, even heroic builds. For better or for worse, real-life analogues are the primary, though not only source of virtual intimacy’s visuality.

Two differences, however, are worth noting. First, visual elements, including both fashion items and ready-made attractive avatar bodies, are for sale—and quite inexpensive. One can acquire a whole closet, featuring a substantial collection of intimates, for very little money. Next, Second Life enables players to adopt a variety of avatar bodies, crossing gender, race, and even species (e.g., “furries,” which are humanoid animal avatars)—even with the same avatar (gender, for example, is simply specified with an always editable radio button). Intimacy-related visuals are available for all these types of avatars as well. Differences such as these—the low expense and the higher variety of avatar bodies available to a player compared with real life—enable quite a bit more visual experimentation, and with it role play, than is available in real life.

Role play is another way in which Second Life users aestheticize intimacy. A major example of this is literary: the ability to participate in an intimate “scene” with another. Documents found in libraries in-world introduce users to the scene, offering advice on the mise-en-scène (including props and staging), character development, principles of narration, use of diction, performance advice, and so on. Now the ability to participate in a scene—which amounts to the real-time collaborative composition of an erotic dialogue—is a learned ability and cannot be bought in stores the way an outfit can and cannot be practiced alone. Resources, from FAQ guides to instructor-led classes, are available for users to become initiates in this written genre. The available writings even include some basic literary theory about the genre, helping participants distinguish between good and bad examples.

This aestheticization of intimacy is not limited to sexual behavior, but rather extends to all of virtual life. In a different study, we researched the virtual domestic spaces of a community devoted to the dark sex-themed novels of Gor [10]. In that community, which we refer to as Ithaca, residents undergo a lengthy period of training before they can properly become members. Once in the community, we found that avatars spend much less time engaging in sexual encounters, instead spending their time among friends, chatting, decorating household interiors, and above all collectively defining and individually cultivating their Gorean citizenship. We were surprised to see that members of what promised to be an exotic and (by reputation) scary community were primarily using the location to engage in everyday acts of friendship, intimacy, and self-cultivation in their virtual homes. We asked the Gorean residents of Ithaca what their most precious virtual object was, and the most common response was a physical token embodying a deeply personal set of memories and associations.

The Second Life client, including its API, rendering capabilities, and 3-D modeling toolset, is regularly updated; the world, in other words, is always evolving. As we have argued, its users’ subjectivities are also in a constant state of evolution. It should not be surprising, then, that we have witnessed changes in intimate expression in Second Life over the years. Whereas the intimacy-related content in the past was explicit, often even pornographic, today we see much more content that is merely intimate, romantic, affectionate, but not overtly sexual. It includes animations, photography, fashion, and ritualized scripts that contain elements of ambiguity, of mystery. Because the meaning of this newer content is not immediately obvious, it needs to be interpreted, incorporated into one’s performance of self. In short, the world has evolved in a way that is more supportive of the kind of stylized identity performance in which users engage.

It is a mistake to think of avatars as online representations with a simple relationship to real-life selves; rather, they are subjectivities constituted by their actions in-world. These actions in-world are conditioned both by real-life horizons and by the particular ways users are able to interface with the virtual world. We have stressed that participation in virtual worlds is akin to multimedia authoring, where the multimedia content created in some meaningful, albeit complex way maps to the identity of the user. The symbolic possibilities available online, when joined with the capabilities of the interface, amount to a software of the self, a tool that enables users to play with their own subjectivities (again, for better or worse).

The hundreds of hours people put into virtual worlds, the friends they make in them, the expressions of intimacy in which they participate, and the personal conflicts they negotiate—all of these become a part of the real-life person, in much the same way as going to a museum or out on a date becomes a part of someone. Users are not so much immersed in virtual worlds as they are immersed in their own social experience, and virtual worlds—like professional life, family life, and intimate life—are a dynamic part of that. Experience-oriented software needs not only to be usable, but it also needs to support these meaning-laden and intensely personal performances of the self.

Beyond being affected by culture, HCI is a cultural force in its own right. As our field rightly embraces notions of cultural, contextual, and embodied computing, it must also face, without flinching, the most personal, intimate, nonrational, and even sexual aspects of our life-worlds, for these are the very stuff of our experience.


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9. Bardzell, S. and J. Bardzell. “Docile avatars: Aesthetics, experience, and sexual interaction in Second Life.” In Proceedings of HCI 2007, The 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference, Lancaster, UK: 2007.

10. Bardzell, S. and W. Odom. “The Experience of Embodied Space in Virtual Worlds: An ethnography of a Second Life community.” Space and Culture: An International Journal of Social Spaces 11, no. 3 (August 2008): 239–259.


Jeffrey Bardzell is an assistant professor of HCI Design at Indiana University. His research focuses on the relationships between software interfaces and innovation in amateur multimedia as well as on the philosophy and aesthetics of interaction design. Recent projects include studies on virtual fashion, measuring user engagement with social media, and developing a theory of interaction criticism.

Shaowen Bardzell is an assistant professor of HCI Design at Indiana University. She specializes in social and cultural computing with an emphasis on emotional, intimate, and/or embodied experiences. Recent work has focused on embodied collaboration in virtual worlds, designing for intimacy and emotion in non-western homes, and concept-driven design strategies for social networking sites such as Yahoo! Answers.




UF1Figure. In Second Life, intimacy mingles with a range of emotions. “Consolation,” by Leila Carroll, depicts how intimacy accompanies grief.

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